Vocollect, a business unit of Intermec Inc.

The old-time vision of the future has been that automation is better – robots building things and automated systems picking inventory. But in practice, the cost-benefit ratio of automation to employees is not always favorable. For most distribution centers today, human workers, made more efficient and accurate by supporting technology, are more cost-effective than automated picking systems.

“Almost every industry today still relies on human picking,” Vocollect Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Roger Byford declares. “There are relatively isolated cases of fully mechanical automation. You see much more frequently partial mechanical automation. I may have a large conveyor system, but I’m still picking the product off the shelves and placing it on the conveyor by hand. That sort of mix is quite frequent.

“For example, the grocery business is relatively non-automated today,” he continues. “Full automation systems are extremely expensive, and while they may offer an attractive long-term payback, the investment can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars for a single facility. So it simply is not practical for a lot of folks. I think at the present cost level the penetration of these full automation systems – although it will increase – will be relatively slow because of their cost and complexity.”

Byford also points out that automated warehouses require extensive remodeling of existing facilities or must be built new. He maintains voice systems can be more productive than automated warehouses, bar codes or labels.

“Scanning a bar code slows people down, and for that reason, the grocery industry never adopted bar code for warehouses, with one or two exceptions,” Byford asserts. “Although they could see an accuracy improvement, they would take a productivity hit, and in that industry, they can’t afford to do that. Voice provides the same accuracy as bar codes and a significant productivity improvement. That’s why voice is near universal in the larger grocery companies, not only here in the U.S., but pretty much worldwide. And today voice is used in many other industries, including retail, third-party logistics, automotive parts and pharmaceuticals.”

Picky, Picky

One of the keys to the Vocollect system’s accuracy and productivity improvement is the check digits at the location – called a “slot” – of each product in a warehouse. The system’s computer directs a picker to the location. The picker reads the check digits into the computer, which verifies the location and then tells the picker how many items to retrieve. The picker repeats back the quantity for verification and picks the amount of product indicated by the computer, which then directs the picker to the next slot.

When products are placed in the slot by lift trucks, the bar code on the product pallet is scanned to ensure the product is stored in the proper slot. “That allows me to pick quickly just using the product locations to direct workers, because I can be very sure the right product was put in that slot to begin with,” Byford explains. “That is what speeds up the process, maintaining very high levels of accuracy – some companies reach 99.99 percent accuracy. Reading off the check digits indicates you are in the right spot. They provide dramatically increased accuracy over paper labels. With a paper-based picking system, there’s no way to make sure you’re in the right spot – there is simply no verification.”

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags – which constantly broadcast product information using radio waves that are intercepted by reading devices worn on the picker’s wrist or belt – can be used in conjunction with the Vocollect system. One advantage to RFID tags is that they can be read while the product is being picked and in movement.

Final Assembly

The Vocollect system is trained to the operator’s voice, and functions well even in the noisiest of distribution centers. It can be used in the warehouses of manufacturing plants – one furniture manufacturer uses it to pick parts from its warehouse for final assembly. Manufacturers also can use the system to pick items for shipment. Beyond picking, voice is now used for many additional workflows, including receiving, putaway, replenishment, and loading. Byford estimates the Vocollect system is used in up to 10,000 warehouses worldwide.

Vocollect Inc. designs its headsets and wearable computers for ruggedness and manufactures them in its 30,000-square-foot facility in Pittsburgh. “We adapted our software to run on handheld computers of a number of manufacturers,” Byford notes. Those manufacturers include Intermec, which acquired Vocollect in March 2011. Many of the parts and components of Vocollect products are manufactured by its partner companies.

“We do final assembly and testing of all our products in Pittsburgh,” Byford declares. Short product runs reduce the need for automated manufacturing. “We’ve made very good use of demand-flow technology to provide maximum flexibility in terms of the product we can turn out,” he continues. “We have a kanban system for managing our inventory of individual components, work in process and final product. That kanban system I would have to say is near-magical in terms of the benefits it provides and the simplicity it offers. You struggle with complexity, and finally an elegant solution emerges. We’ve really benefited from that.”

Another market into which Vocollect is expanding is skilled nursing facilities through its Vocollect Healthcare Systems operation. The Vocollect system can remind aides of the tasks that must be performed on a regular schedule, verify that they were done and provide documentation for reimbursement.

For the future, Byford sees expanding the use of Vocollect systems in smaller warehouses. “We see great opportunity in some of the emerging nations,” he asserts. “We’re building a very attractive business in Latin America and growing throughout Southeast Asia. By our calculations, the extent to which the voice industry as a whole has penetrated the distribution industry is still low. So we believe there is still tremendous opportunity for growth. We believe we will continue to be the strong market leader in driving that growth.”